On May 18, 2016, the Class of 2016 will graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and become the newest group of officers in the U.S. Coast Guard. Over the next four weeks, Coast Guard Compass will take an inside look at four of the upcoming graduates and the future of these new leaders.
Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall
Deep in the center of Africa, tucked away in the continent’s great lakes region, lies the country of Rwanda. In 1994, the eyes of the world turned to this small nation as the Hutu majority carried out devastating acts of genocide against the Tutsi, a minority group comprising roughly 15 percent of the population. More than 800,000 men, women, and children perished during those tragic weeks.
Many years have passed and Rwandans today refuse to let the travesties of the genocide define them. First Class Cadet Jackson Karama, a mechanical engineering major at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is one among many resolved Rwandans determined to take part in their country’s rebirth.
“It was amazing to grow up in a country that was recovering from the genocide,” said Karama, “and to watch the leaders transform it from ruins into the clean and beautiful, fast-developing country it is now – the safest and most secure in Africa.”
During the genocide, Karama’s family lived in a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda. Karama was four years old when they returned to Rwanda, and settled in the eastern town of Nyagatare.
“Most buildings were in ruins and mines were planted in random places around town,” recalls Karama. “The only school available was an old church in which every corner of the open church was a classroom.”
Like many students in Rwanda, Karama dreamed of going to college in America.
“But that wasn’t enough,” said Karama. “I felt the need to be part of the military that transformed my nation and to serve my people that are still hurting from the effects of the genocide.”
Karama had read about the Coast Guard Academy online and was impressed by its ranking as one of the best engineering schools in the U.S. He studied hard and raised his SAT and English test scores with the help of Bridge2Rwanda, a non-governmental organization that prepares Rwandan students for college in America. With the support of his government and the U.S. Embassy, Karama applied and was accepted to the Academy.
“Before I got in, they thought I was crazy because I couldn’t even afford school in Rwanda,” said Karama referring to his family. “Now they think it is a miracle. They have very high expectations for me.”
The Academy has several international cadets in attendance from countries spanning the globe. Bringing cadets to the Academy across borders not only benefits the international students, but enriches the Corps of Cadets and Coast Guard as a whole, deepening cultural understanding, broadening perspective, and forging lasting professional and personal friendships.
“The relationships I have developed with the current and future officers of the U.S. military at large, I believe helped create a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture and country systems,” said Karama.
International cadets have been attending the Academy since 1971, receiving technical education and professional training that enables them to provide leadership for the military service of their home nations. More than 130 international cadets from 38 countries have graduated from the Coast Guard Academy. Twenty-two international cadets are currently enrolled.
While studying at the Academy, Karama has sailed on Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, competed in track, instructed swabs in sailing, played club soccer, and served as International Council president, among many other experiences. Above all, he values the friends he has made through these experiences and offers a few words of encouragement to his fellow cadets, and all Coast Guard members.
“Take care of your shipmates,” said Karama. “Junior or senior to you, on a bad day or a good day, always be ready to identify and help out a struggling shipmate. I owe every success I have had to my shipmates.”
After graduation, Karama will return home to serve in the Rwandan Defense Forces and take part in the building of his country. His friends, classmates, and shipmates, will enter the Coast Guard fleet with their minds opened and their perspective broadened by the crossing of paths with Karama, and his fellow international cadets.